The Muse of Engagement




Writers age twice. Just as we age, year by year, change indistinctly as we age, writers must as they age go through a second tier of change. None of us are the writers we started off as. We have changed, some change more than others, but evolution of one sort or another is irresistible.

So it is befitting that every now and then, at random, non-linear points, we stop and ask ourselves: why do I write?

I think you’ll find the answer you give yourself now far removed from what you would first have told yourself when you started your literary journey. That’s certainly the case for me.

In one of my first blogs (link here: I wrote:

I write for the same reasons my ancestors told their stories, to illuminate our world, make it more comprehensible and to make us experience its vast, impossible diversity without having to leave our nests.

 That whole raison d’etre, that felt so set in stone back then, feels unrecognisable now. It is a sad thing to have to do, to declare your raison d’etre expired. And it is even sadder to know that whatever replaces it will also have an expiry date. But we soldier on – we have to.

The New Year period is always a ‘classical’ one for me. On New Year’s Day my family and I watch the New Year’s Concert in Vienna and listen to many inimitable waltzes and symphonies from across the ages. Today I happened to hear the Lark Ascending. In a supermarket car park. And I felt absolutely elevated, torn out of my skin by the unreal beauty of the piece. In a supermarket car park!

Later, when I got home, I had to take myself for a walk, on the pretence of wanting to buy smoked salmon for my lunch. And as I walked down the familiar streets of my hometown I began to ask myself: how do I write novels like the Lark Ascending? That’s a question that still needs answering. But at least I knew: I want to write novels like the Lark Ascending.

Full of beauty, subtlety, grandeur and, most importantly, inspiration.

The novels that hooked me from a young age hooked me badly. The first one being, predictably Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Back then, when I read it as a booze-hungry adolescent I knew nothing about novels, novel-writing, nor did I do much reading. But from as soon as I read it I had acquired new obsessions that would last a lifetime: I became obsessed by Spain, bullfighting and Hemingway himself.

It made me an expert on anything to do with those three. I learnt Spanish, visited Spain several times, and bullfights to boot. I drank what Hemingway drank, read everything he wrote, and started writing myself.

All from a piece of paper imbued with a writer’s words. Later on other books would have a similar effect on me. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night. Joseph Conrad’s The Heart Of Darkness. Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba The Greek. And Joyce’s Ulysses. These are works of art that have inspired me. But, then, what is inspiration?

I’ve often asked myself that. The ancient Greeks believed it to be a furor poetica a divine frenzy or madness, an out-of-body fit of creativity. For Christians inspiration is the gift of the Holy Spirit. For John Locke inspiration was a kind of random coming together of thoughts driven by the resonance of a unifying idea.

For me it is about engagement. At least, that’s what I figured as I walked to fetch my smoked salmon.

And it’s not about engagement with the reader. When writers write they are self-absorbed, locked away, the rest of the world is but a piece of abstract clay to be used and moulded. Writers don’t care about readers when they’re writing. That comes later. I’m talking about engagement with the subject.

Writing isn’t as zen-like, meditative process, as so many people imagine. When writing, maybe. But writing is a very small part of a writer’s life. Most of his time is taken up by research, exploration, living, hunting for images, characters, truths, writers are pirates always sailing on the crests of life on the look-out for booty. Writers are by nature fantastically engaged with their surroundings.

And the best writers, I feel, are those who can communicate that engagement. Those who can inspire readers to look at the world around them with new, excited eyes, to live a bit more loudly, think a bit more deeply, love more profoundly and hate more kindly!

A lot of positives can be gleamed from a negative. There are several famous, lauded writers whose work I just can’t connect with. Because the writing somehow feels self-involved. Tony Wilson used to say jazz musicians enjoy their performance far more than their audience. I find this to be true of writers like Haruki Murakami, Ben Okri, Junot Diaz and even to an extent Anthony Doerr. All these are great writers in their own right but at times I find them to be victims of their own genius. I don’t want to read a work that screams genius at me. I want to read a work of genius. A work of art. I’m not interested in your postmodernist structure, dialogue, your time-travelling, your cats and other worlds; that doesn’t turn me on.

And when I read, when I hear a piece of music, or look at a painting – I want to be turned on! I want to copulate with life (say that in your head as it’s meant to be said, f-word and all). I want to be a child and recreate what I’ve just read. I want to to want to be a character in the novel, to be in the same places, feel the same feelings, experience the same wonders. I want to be engaged!

This particular brand of inspiration that drives me and that I hope to instil in my readers is disappointingly relevant in our times. Times when people have the whole world at their fingertips and choose to spend their time catching Pokemon or Snapchatting. A world that is so full of wonders, and yet people sail through life with their phones to their jaws and their careers prodding them like a sinister acupuncturist. We can’t afford to lead dull lives. Life is too rare a gift to spurn so mundanely.

This is what I want to communicate. Not just to my readers but to myself. When I write I immerse myself. In this last novel, The Shadows Of Paradise, I immersed myself in the cuisine, lifestyle, history and tragedies of modern Vietnam. In my previous work, White Clouds Of Mourning, I was inspired by a Libyan girl I had the privilege to know and learn from. And so many of my short stories, like the one published in Brasilia Review, A Couple And A City, was inspired by my travels in Madrid. When I sit down to write I sit down to journey and learn and feel awe. Writing for me is seeing things I’ve never seen and learning to feel and think about experiences I might never have.


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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Thoughtful meditation on your writing life. Made me think about mine. Creating a world is much better than being at the mercy of the world, or at least a compensation for it.


    1. justinfenech says:

      Many thanks for your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

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